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Rory Gallagher, the forgotten guitar god

A new box set celebrates the 50th anniversary of this Irish blues-rock guitarist's debut solo album

Rory Gallagher at the 1974 Schaefer Music Festival in New York.
Rory Gallagher at the 1974 Schaefer Music Festival in New York. (Instagram/rorygallagherofficial)

According to lore, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Jimi Hendrix was asked, “How does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the world?” He is believed to have answered, “I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher.” Accounts of Hendrix’s reference to the Irish blues-rock guitarist and singer abound but, to be honest, I have not been able to ascertain its veracity. What is patently true, however, is Gallagher’s massive influence on other musicians, particularly British guitarists, including some of his peers.

Eric Clapton once told the BBC that Gallagher should be credited with “getting me back into the blues”, and in his early career, Queen’s guitarist Brian May not only adopted the Irishman’s playing style but used the same kind of equipment as Gallagher.

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Through the years, Gallagher has influenced several iconic guitarists. And had he not died prematurely in 1995 at the age of 47, it is likely he would have influenced several more. Indeed, younger guitarists such as U2’s The Edge and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash have frequently mentioned him as inspiration.  

Early last month, a boxed Super Deluxe edition of Rory Gallagher, the self-titled debut album that began his solo career in 1971, was released. It’s a 52-song extravaganza which includes newly mastered mixes of the original tracks, alternative takes, and live versions. For those who are familiar with Gallagher’s music, it’s a treat. For others, it’s a perfect introduction to someone who was a musician’s musician and a legend to boot.

When you listen to that debut album, it is easy to see why blues rockers such as Clapton hold him in such high esteem. Critics have often described Gallagher’s style as being an alloy of Clapton’s and Hendrix’s styles. But it well may have been the other way round: His style may have inflected theirs. It’s a style where his Fender Stratocaster 1961’s hard-driven riffs meet highly rhythmic phrases and where technical excellence (such as Clapton’s, for instance) coexists with raw emotional virtuosity (such as Hendrix’s).

Gallagher was a competent, although not exceptionally gifted, lyric writer as well, expressing the ethos of the blues but with a (then) contemporary urban feel. In the opening song of his debut album, Laundromat, he sings: What do you think of that/ I’m sleeping down at the laundromat/ If you should pass you should drop my bag/ But I don’t have no clothes to clean/ To put inside the machine/ But it was the craziest place I have ever been. Besides searing guitar licks on most of the tracks, the album has a few surprises, such as a spare traditional blues-style rendition of Muddy Waters’ classic, Gypsy Woman.

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Blues aficionados will be familiar with The London Muddy Waters Sessions, an album released in 1972, with its distinctive poster-style cover art showing Waters in a London Bobby’s helmet and musicians spilling out of a London double-decker bus. It was the second in a project where British blues rockers played with legendary American bluesmen. The first was The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, where British musicians such as Clapton, Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood and Bill Wyman accompanied Howlin’ Wolf. The Muddy Waters Sessions had a similar star-studded ensemble, including Winwood, Rick Grech (of Traffic and Blind Faith fame) and Mitch Mitchell (of The Jimi Hendrix Experience). But on most tracks it was Gallagher who steals the show with his guitar licks.

Although Gallagher’s life was cut short—a heavy drinker, he succumbed to liver failure following a transplant—we are fortunate that there is a substantially large cache of albums to his credit, including the albums he made with his first band, Taste.

There are at least 11 studio albums and half a dozen live albums. In addition, there are several compilations, and of course, the appearances with others, such as the Muddy Waters Sessions. The Taste albums have a different kind of appeal. In 1970’s On The Boards, the bluesy rawness is at the forefront, with Gallagher’s Stratocaster screaming out licks, but the album is also a precursor to the music of a band that was simply called Rory Gallagher. There are ballads; traditional slow blues songs (not bereft of great guitar licks); and on the title track, a saxophone surprisingly makes an entry.

To really appreciate Gallagher’s music, though, one must turn to the new box set that commemorates his solo debut. The alternate takes of the originals are enjoyable but the real excitement lies in the list of live recordings on the album. There is a set of songs from Gallagher’s performance at the Sunday Concerts that were hosted by BBC’s legendary RJ, the late John Peel. They play that gig as a trio—lead guitar, bass, and drums—and although it’s just six songs, it is that minimalistic live performance which best showcases Gallagher’s talents as a guitarist. He was truly a guitarist’s guitarist.

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